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July 4, 2020, 8:56 a.m. EDT

At Mount Rushmore, Trump digs deeper into nation’s divisions

The president flew across the nation to gather a big crowd of supporters, most of them maskless and all of them flouting public health guidelines that recommend not gathering in large groups

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By Associated Press

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“This is going to rank up in the top Fourth of Julys that I talk about,” said Mike Stewhr, who brought his family from Nebraska.

Mike Harris of Rapid City, who said he was a Republican, wore a mask and waved an anti-Trump flag. He also was sporting a handgun on each hip. He said he was worried the event would spark a COVID-19 outbreak.

“I think it’s a bad example being set by our president and our governor,” Harris said.

Leaders of several Native American tribes in the region raised concerns that the event could lead to virus outbreaks among their members, who they say are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an underfunded health care system and chronic health conditions.

“The president is putting our tribal members at risk to stage a photo op at one of our most sacred sites,” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Some Native American groups used Trump’s visit to protest the Mount Rushmore memorial itself, pointing out that the Black Hills were taken from the Lakota people.

More than 100 protesters, many Lakota, lined the road leading from Keystone to the monument holding signs and playing Lakota music in 95-degree heat. Some held their fists in the air as cars loaded with event attendees passed by. Others held signs that read “Protect SoDak’s First People,” “You Are On Stolen Land” and “Dismantle White Supremacy.”

“The president needs to open his eyes. We’re people, too, and it was our land first,” said Hehakaho Waste, a spiritual elder with the Oglala Sioux tribe.

About 15 protesters were arrested after blocking a road and missing a police-imposed deadline to leave.

Several people who once oversaw fire danger at the national memorial had said setting off fireworks over the forest was a bad idea that could lead to a large wildfire. Fireworks were called off after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation increased the fire risks.

Noem pushed to get the fireworks resumed soon after she was elected, and enlisted Trump’s help. The president brushed aside fire concerns earlier this year, saying: “What can burn? It’s stone.”

Trump has presided over a several large-crowd events — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and at an Arizona megachurch — even as health officials warn against large gatherings and recommend face masks and social distancing. He plans a July Fourth celebration on the National Mall in Washington despite health concerns from D.C.’s mayor. Trump and Melania Trump plan to host events from the White House South Lawn and from the Ellipse.

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